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D.C. Landmark Disappears in a Cloud of Dust

Convention Center Collapses According to Plan

By Manny Fernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page C01

In the end, the demise of the old Washington Convention Center resembled more of a deflation than an implosion -- the squat structure, at its tallest roughly the equivalent of a four-story building, didn't have far to fall.

It died about 7:30 a.m. yesterday in a roughly 20-second ballet of crackling explosives, toppling walls and a large cloud of dust that marked the spot where on Dec. 10, 1982, city officials had hosted a grand opening reception.


Pepco employees check a manhole at 11th and H streets NW after the implosion. Only light damage was reported around the convention center. (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

_____Video_____
It took about 20 seconds for the 22-year-old structure to crumble to the ground.
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This time, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) presided over a gathering at the newer, flashier convention center a couple of blocks away to pay last respects to its smaller cousin. The mayor, helped by several children, pushed down a red-handled ceremonial plunger seconds before the building fell.

Onlookers and pedestrians reacted to the implosion -- the first in Washington since a 10-story enclosed parking garage went down in 1974 -- with awe, fright or simple curiosity, depending on where they were standing at 7:30. Some said it sounded like rapid machine-gun fire followed by a loud thunderclap. Others said it resembled the muffled rumble of a subway train passing underfoot, while at least one man thought an earthquake had struck.

Explosives attached to the building's concrete and steel columns cut out the legs of the 800,000-square-foot facility, causing the roof and walls to topple. Demolition executives and convention center officials described the implosion as a success, and they said there were no reports of injuries or significant property damage.

"We're very happy with these results," said Terry W. Anderson, executive vice president of Wrecking Corp. of America, the Alexandria company that is leading the demolition and cleanup, a roughly seven-month, $6.7 million project.

But not quite everything went according to plan.

The implosion caused a 73-year-old man outside the nearby Mount Vernon Square Metro station to faint, authorities said. "Apparently, he didn't realize anything was going on," said Alan Etter, spokesman for the D.C. fire department. "He said he thought there was an earthquake." The man was treated at the scene and was not transported to a hospital.

At least four small and large window panels outside Capitol City Brewing Co. broke but remained in place. The restaurant is directly across from the convention center at H and 11th streets NW. A spokesman for the convention center said about 10 windows of nearby properties were broken.

But the implosion left the surrounding buildings and streets generally unharmed. About 60 feet across from the building's crumbled walls along Ninth Street, newspaper boxes, parking meters and an empty of bottle of Heineken on a restaurant ledge escaped without a scratch.

Throughout the morning, the old convention center, the host of roughly 5,000 events, remained in death an attraction to many: Small crowds of people stood on the corners and walked up to the chain-link fence, taking pictures and watching crews begin the dismantling and cleanup.

The project's demolition experts said they didn't want to level the structure but instead sought to dismantle enough of it to pick it apart with machines and torches. Two long sections along the north and the south side remained standing as planned, and the 10,000 tons of steel and 50,000 cubic yards of concrete and masonry formed not a flat pile but a tilted, twisted mass.

Anderson said 90 percent of the materials will be recycled, with the steel headed to scrap yards and the concrete destined to be pulverized and crushed to form the bottom layer of what will be a big parking lot.

The lot is only a temporary use of the 10-acre site, while city officials work on plans to turn the area into a mixed-use development expected to include retail, housing and a new central library.

"I watched it get built, and I wanted to see how they'd take it down," said Larry Rice Sr., 50. Rice, a native Washingtonian, stood on Seventh Street NW to watch the implosion, outside a safety perimeter police set up to close sections of surrounding streets for part of the morning.

But the site was not only something to gawk at.

Inside the rubble were 24 battery-operated transmitters that replicate emergency radio communications frequencies and cell phone signals. Researchers with the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology were conducting an experiment that is expected to one day help rescuers locate and communicate with emergency personnel and others trapped in collapsed buildings.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company